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Friday, December 16, 2005

On Wednesday I heard a lecture at American Univesity in Cairo by the author Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God (which I name because it's the only one of her books I've read) and numerous other books on religion.

I came away disappointed. Her talk struck me as simply shallow, which surprised me because in her writing, Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, comes across as thorough and serious in her study of other religions. (I was also surprised that, as she mentioned at the beginning of the talk, this is the first time she had ever visited Cairo, a city that is historically one of the world's centers of Islamic studies.)

The main thrust of her talk was that Islam is terribly misunderstood in the West, and that the Islam of violent fundamentalists is so far removed from "true Islam" that it is not even worth discussing in the same sentence. She also took pains to point out that just as "Islam" is not the monolithic block that many in the West seem to think it is, neither is "the West" a monolithic block, with lots of differences between Europeans and Americans (especially as regards religiousity) and conflicts within these cultures as well. We are seeing not so much a clash of civilizations, she said, but a clash within civilizations.

Americans, she said, have often surprised her by being surprisingly ignorant of the politcal dimensions of non-Western conflicts, while to their credit, there is a much greater understanding of religion in America than in Europe. Europeans are skewed the opposite direction. Oddly, while criticizing secular Europeans for failing to grasp the importance of religion in the world, she herself seemed to do the same, at least during this talk, by downplaying the religious aspects of violent fundamentalism.

Toward the end of the Q&A that followed, for instance, one young man took the microphone and asked what seemed to me a rather innocuous question: If you asked Americans to name a spokesperson for Islam, 99% of them would say Osama Bin Laden. So why is it that in American there are so few "moderate Muslim" voices, at least in the media?

She basically went ballistic on the guy. "I absolutely hate it, hate it," she said, "when I hear the words 'moderate Muslim.' There is absolutely nothing moderate about somebody's religion. Would you call me a 'moderate Catholic'?"

OK, fair point, but...

She went on to make a rather weak comparison with the troubles in Norhern Ireland. Every time there was an IRA attack, you didn't read the British press calling on "moderate Catholics" to condemn the violence, she said.

But Gerry Adams and Co. never went around preaching holy way like they were the Pope's army fighting to establish a new Inquisition in Ireland. The battle was almost entirely purely sectarian and nationalist. Al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorst groups, on the other hand, definitely see themselves as taking up God's fight.

Essentially, she was asking us to ignore the religious aspects of the current conflict, espousing the pleasant-sounding platitude that terrorists do not practice "true Islam," which is a peaceful religion. I expected the author of The Battle for God to be among the first to understand that religion comes in all different shades, including violent ones, and that there's no "true Islam" or "true Christianity," etc.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Rupert said...

I heard Mrs. Armstrong on NPR about a year ago, saying essentially the same thing. 'Islam is a religion of peace and does not at all condone violence'.

Now when I heard this, I immediately thought of the violent verses of the Quran which explicitly call for violence against infidels, woman etc. Hilariously, the first caller to the show( Diane Rehm ) made the exact same point and read a relevant quote from some sura.

Mrs. Armstrong's explanation? Well, we need to examine the context. "Muhammed(?) and his followers were under attack you see, ..." blah blah. The point was, she was being blatantly dishonest and when called to it, simply changed the subject.

I appreciate her nuance for religion. Islam is not eclusively a religion of violence nor of peace. It's many things. But at least be honest about it.

3:13 AM  

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